Give 'em a lighter and everyone’s a firestarter. How many variations on “Maybe you shouldn’t burn the carpet/curtains/ballgown/dwarf lady,” can one person think of?
LOL yeah tell me about it I came in 70th place in 2021 IFComp, and the only game I beat was a non-IF graphical card game ffs
As for writing my very first game (not submitted to any contests), I think there were two things that I took away from it. Keep in mind that I write choice-based IF as opposed to the parser stuff.
- It’s very difficult to understand the difference between authoring linear prose (a novel) and IF, especially getting away from the “railroad” aspect that is the backbone of all linear writing. In other words, your beautiful narrative arc can be smashed to pieces by the players, so you need to arrange all of the beats differently so they’re more “stand alone” or “self-contained”. Also, the speed at which characters are developed and plot lines are revealed feels 10x faster than a traditional novel, yet good writing of the old-fashioned kind is what makes that lasting impact for the players of IF.
- Interestingly, the “game” elements (as opposed to “story” elements) seem to come intuitively, even to folks like me who aren’t big gamers. I think we just all know what a fun game feels like. That being said, calibrating the game elements to get the right amount of tension between the player’s ability to succeed and fail is where the work is. It took me a solid two weeks of jimmying a handful of starting values to get one of my games to hit that sweet spot of “I can beat this, I know I can!” Honestly? It’ll put a tear in your eye when you watch someone play your game and it’s calibrated right.
I generally believe that I have a good idea of this, but sometimes I feel like a bit of a flake with no idea what people like or think.
This second thing, though, the calibration–I am already wrestling with this. I think there has to be a honeymoon period where players learn the systems and their potential before ratcheting things up a bit. I agree that getting difficulty right will be the trickiest part.
I had some notes and ideas for my first parser fiction but, after dipping into Inform 7 and implementing one of the mechanics (following the approach Emily Short called prototype the hard part first), I realized that I would never finish the full-length game.
So I developed the main mechanic completely and then built a minimal story around it. The result was a very compact one-location game that I still like a lot. I used this game twice as a pilot run: first, building and shipping a complete parser game, and second, entering an IFComp (an English version did quite well for a game of its size in 2020).
A good piece of advice is that shipping is a feature, so it’s better to start with a small project, and to not hesitate to reduce the scope if you feel you can lose your development momentum.
Oh, God, yes. Thank you. (I’m blushing right now.) I appreciate you saying it plays like a veteran’s game. It’s not, at least in that sense.
Sweetpea was my first self contained game- I’d been noodling around with Twine on and off for some time beforehand, but generally to enhance other projects or D&D campaigns, not really as anything stand alone. I wrote up a post-mortem (with sub-headings, as it direly needed those), which does go into most of my immediate thoughts after hurriedly shoving it out the door with the rest of the SpringThing entries when the deadline sauntered on over.
Having had a fair number of reviews (quite a lot more feedback than I’ve gotten in awhile or expected, I was thrilled and am still very excitable whenever I see a mention to it’s name or a full review out in the wilds of the forums, my dear sweet friends have been putting up lovingly with me abruptly cheering during our conversations), and a little more time to think it all over…
I think I’m very pleased by the fact that most people seem to point to the writing as the strongest factor, and comment on how it seems like I’ve done a good job in writing in the gothic tradition- I consider myself a poet, writer, artist, and general creative (mucking around with making chip tune-y songs, poking at coding, small things I pick up for fun and am not as good at) in that order, and the gothic is an area I’ve spent a lot of time studying in and writing for in both an academic and personal context. So, yay, good to hear that that panned out!
I’m also so happy that people found Michael eerie, as mean as I feel for being pleased people were unsettled, hahaha. My absolute favourite bits of writing in Sweetpea were the Michael components, after all- body horror and making the surreal supposedly familiar (but not really, as the reader is disjointed by the conflict of how accepting the characters are, versus the reader being very aware weird hijinks are afoot) are some of my favourite toys in my toybox of writing tropes and tools.
I am a little surprised people felt there was a decent amount of choice in it, (it was a linear story really, though I did try to not go for the whole CLICK SOLELY TO CONTINUE cardinal sin of Twine, apparently). Also, I was surprised to hear a few people apparently thought it had been written with some form of state tracking- unfortunately no, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to do that, and the snarl of writing out individual passages and linking them led to the one big (not gamebreaking, thank goodness) error with the study loop. But I mean, it apparently faked the job well enough, hahahaha. In the future I’d look into that more, it seems to be pretty convenient.
The criticism I got I mostly am not really surprised by, and agree with- in terms of layout accessibility/colour choice, confusion on which links progressed the plot versus which were brief side jaunts before braiding back into the main thread, a bit of oddness around pacing (plot structures have always been my weakest element of writing), and the errant typo or two. Things I’d need to buff out and polish, but that didn’t totally fridge the game, thankfully. The major bits were mostly related to programming, which I anticipated- I am very new to it!
I had a lot of fun making Sweetpea. I would like to enter next year’s SpringThing again, maybe with that survival horror romance I’ve got simmering in the background… It was really cool getting feedback from the forums. I’m still too afraid to enter IFComp (and I don’t think the sorts of things I make would rank well in it anyways), but I had enough of a good time I’d consider giving it another go.
Piffle. Everyone has loved Sweetpea, quite deservedly, and you should definitely think about IFComp. Make what you like and don’t worry about the rankings. It’s the best way to get your work out there, seen, and played.
I’ve been tossing around the idea (sort of like Dr. House with his silly tennis ball when he’s mulling things over, a fitting comparison considering I’ve been having a horrible pain day today, hence the extra convoluted and waffle-y posts- I usually edit my stuff down for coherence, and my mind tends to wander when I’m particularly ill), but honestly, it’s the idea of a larger audience interacting with my work that has me nervous.
Normally my stuff is written for a very small group- me, if I think it sounds like fun and I like it, and my friends, who put up lovingly with me hopping around excitedly like GUYS LOOK WHAT I MADE! And while venturing out into larger groups (peer workshops, classrooms, this year’s SpringThing) have gone generally well, the trade off of greater recognition to maybe a harsher reception has me a little anxious. Smaller venues tend to be a lot nicer?
And of course, I’m always thankful people do take the time to interact with my work and share their thoughts, and I wouldn’t be so rude as to lash out even if I got a harsh critique, (I’d probably just take some time to myself before responding to thank them for the review if anything, or just not respond if I felt that was best) but it feels really disheartening and scary to put out something that I might really like, but would tank upon reception. And since historically the things’ve that’ve done well are the total opposite of what I like to write- puzzle-y, funny, light hearted works, it feels a bit silly to put forwards something that I already know will have a niche audience. The competitive element kind of makes me worried it’d be a bit more cutthroat than the SpringThing’s emphasis on showcasing, rather than ranking.
I’m a deeply anxious person who prefers the gentleness of non-competitive spaces because I write things I know I enjoy and maybe a handful of others will, especially when it comes to things that are very close to home for me- content warning for alcoholism like how Sweetpea touches on family dynamics and alcoholism beneath the glittery paint of the gaudy gothic extremes but that I don’t think would have larger appeal, and IFComp has more emphasis on ranking that makes me kind of nervous, haha.
I guess all of that could be summed up as: having my work out there for a larger audience isn’t something I’m super interested in, though I do appreciate people interacting with it. The trade off of exposure at the cost of maybe a harsher reception, especially with the ranking system, makes me pretty nervous.
Fair enough. I do hope that I get to see and play more of your work, though-- I hope you will still publish games even if it’s not in a comp setting.
That’s really sweet of you to say!
I’d like to think that I’d keep writing interactive fiction as a hobby- I know for sure that writing will always be a love of mine, as it has been since I was old enough to figure out how to scribble together silly little picturebooks of bunny adventures, but no one’s ever 100% sure of the future, are they? Haha. Especially since I’ll be in for a real shock when I (fingers crossed) graduate next year…
But, I’ve been thinking of entering next year’s SpringThing (…and with work put into it ahead of time, rather than spur-of-the-moment deciding to cobble something in a month during exam season next go around, ahahahaha.) And I have entered a gamejam recently with a friend- though I’m rather insecure about that work, since it’s in a totally new program/engine(?) and tone (script/dialog is the norm, rather than prose) but I’ve got the safety blanket of being confident enough in my art to give it a stab, like how I scaffolded off of feeling more assured of my writing in the gothic for Sweetpea, so hopefully that goes well. I’ve been having fun with it at any rate, and that’s the important part!
So, for the time being as far as I can foresee, yeah, I’ll still probably be around tinkering around with games. And blathering on forums. LOL!
It’s especially hard to receive criticism for something you’ve put your heart and soul into, because it can feel like a personal attack. I have a harder time receiving criticism on my fiction than I do for IF, because with games it feels like there’s a layer of distance between the work and myself: the interface, the gameplay/replayability, personal taste etc. But it’s also something that’s gotten easier with time. For me, the process of releasing work into the world to be experienced by others is inextricable from the process of making it in the first place - I have something I want to express, and it’s psychically excruciating for it to just sit in my head bouncing around. But that might not be the case for you. For me, anyway, it’s worth having people dislike it (sometimes even perversely pleasurable) because I have the relief of finally expunging it.
For what it’s worth, I found the alcoholism content in Sweetpea more affecting and relatable than any other part of the game. I’m grateful you decided to include it (and chose to release the game publicly).
I’m actually returning to IF after a long hiatus. Last time I was regularly writing IF they were called “text adventures” and rolling your own parser was par for the course.
I can’t really recall what my first game was, or even my first IF game. The earliest game I can nail down to a specific date was published in 1988, and I wrote it in 1987. This was for one of the magazines devoted to the TRS-80 Color Computer, Rainbow magazine. For several years they ran an annual competition for text adventures. The winning games were published in the magazine (as source listings the readers were expected to type in themselves). There was also a standalone book for each of the contests containing all of the winning entries, The Rainbow Book of Adventures, with each year being a new volume.
I entered a game in the contest in 1987, subsequently published in 1988 as the Fourth Rainbow Book of Adventures. That turned out to be the last time they ran the contest, and my game was the last one in the book, so I guess I killed it.
Anyway, I think I got something like $200 and a copy of the book for being a winner. I wrote other games, including IF games, around the same time that also got published, but I couldn’t give specific dates for any of them. I kept copies of the magazines that had my stuff in them for awhile, but lost them to water damage years ago. As chance would have it my copy of The Fourth Rainbow Book of Adventures survived (the magazines were in bottom of a cupboard, the book was on top of a bookshelf) so it’s the only tangible proof I have of any of the games I wrote way back then.
Anyway, the game was called Life: An Everyday Adventure. The goal of the game is to do various everyday tasks (make coffee, take out the mail, put out the cat) before catching a plane. It was, I think, probably a terrible game in that specific way that a lot of IF of that era was: it was violently unforgiving and maximally cruel (in the Plotkin sense of the word) and there were many hidden timers.
The parser, such as it was, was implemented entirely in BASIC, mostly as a nest of ugly conditionals.
The game text–room and item descriptions and so on–were written in, and I can’t apologize enough for this, in a bespoke Caesar cipher more or less equivalent to ROT13 (I didn’t know what ROT13 was at the time, or I probably would’ve just used it). You know, so the people at home with a copy of the magazine propped up on their keyboard wouldn’t get any spoilers. While they typed in page after page. Of random gibberish. With no error correction or checksumming.
I’m frankly astonished that literally anybody put up with that nonsense to get the game entered, but some people apparently did, because I subsequently had people contact me about the game.
Anyway, in addition to the nightmarish data entry problem I created for aspiring players, the game itself was someway larger than could fit into the confines of the computer it was designed for. The game program (actually several independent programs) wrote data to a dedicated floppy disc, which the parser then accessed as needed. This was, of course, incredibly slow.
So: that’s not the first IF game I ever wrote, but it’s the earliest one I can make any concrete statements about. And I’m willing to believe that it’s worse, by modern standards, than virtually anyone else here’s first game.
I’ve said this elsewhere:
In MFA/CW culture, there is a social expectation that you will behave as if you desire negative feedback because a “real writer” can take it and prefers learning that way.
The reality is, lots of people don’t enjoy it and that’s totally fine. Different people value different types of learning.
That’s to say nothing of possible power dynamics in a workshop (or forum, or review site).
I feel that writing games might not be so different.
Also, I get that quantifying the “quality” of art is just a thing people do, but I find it reductive.
Maybe so, but I hear about people writing homebrew parser games in basic, and I’m genuinely impressed. I can write an Inform 7 game, but I doubt I could do that. I did write a basic cyoa once, but that was it. Great story!
Most homebrew parsers, and I’m pretty sure all of the ones I’ve personally written, are much easier to enjoy in the abstract. In terms of actually playing games implemented using them, it really can’t be overstated how much of a boon freely-available authoring systems (and their IDEs) like Inform 7 are.
They absolutely and immeasurably help in the ways that you probably immediately think of, which we might call their “tool-ness”: they are tools that make it easier to interact with the basic nuts and bolts practicalities of writing a game. In other words, they make the effort of getting to “hello, world” much simpler than if you’re starting from scratch.
So there’s that. But I also think it can’t be overstated how useful they are, particularly to novice programmers/game designers, in providing what for wont of a better word I’ll call a “default idiom”. That is, if you’re trying to implement some gameplay feature you might find yourself asking a question of the form “how do I…”, and all of the modern IF systems provide one or more discrete answers to that question. And there are resources like this place in which you can literally ask such questions and get answers.
When you’re writing something from scratch you don’t really get that. Like yeah you can always get general programming advice and that kind of thing, but I remember when I made the intuitive leap from designing like games where everything is laid out in a grid (and so the player location is a number and movement is an arithmetic manipulation of the location), wondering how games like Zork must work under the hood, and figuring out how to implement (a very simplistic sort of) object-oriented design (an exit is just an arbitrary property associated with the room!). A modern IF author doesn’t have to figure out that kind of thing for themselves, because it’s implicit in the design of all modern IF authoring systems.
Systems like Inform and TADS and Twine encapsulate a whole lot of that kind of game design know-how into their architectures, and authors implementing games using those systems get the benefit of all those “implicit answers”, or whatever you want to call them. To the extent that most authors can write entire games without wrestling with questions about underlying data structures or whatever and still end up making the right decisions about most of those things (just by accepting the “defaults” the environment provides). Not just in terms of performance or whatever (although that too) but in terms of making things easier, in the long run, for the author (and therefore any players that might encounter the results).
I mean if you look at Inform 7 and it’s blazingly obvious that it was designed to make it as easy as possible to define things, like rooms, purely declaratively: I want a thing, here is the thing’s name, and now I will enumerate its properties. This makes it more or less as easy as it could be to add things, like rooms, to a game: you just have to list the things that make this particular thing unique, and more or less literally everything else just sorta takes care of itself.
This helps in the “obvious” way of making it easy to do the thing itself and make sure it does so without errors–this is the short path to “hello, world” or whatever you want to call it–but this also has the less-obvious advantage that because this is all so straightforward and mostly takes care of itself that you’re not discouraged from doing it. In modern parser games if a room description mentions a lace doily on the credenza, then you expect that you’ll be able to examine the doily and the credenza. And that’s a reasonable expectation in part because it’s just so much easier to implement additional “stuff” in modern authoring systems than it used to be.
I don’t remember playing your game, but I definitely remember typing in code, character by character, from those fuzzy newsprint magazines! Whew mercy.
In fact, my father and I used to do it as a team where he’d read the code aloud (three, capital a, lowercase d, number sign, open parens… etc) and I’d type it in, then together we’d go insane for a few hours as we debugged our mistakes to get the program to execute. Crazy days!
This is where your handy testing partner comes in. Whenever I’ve got a pure game element to test, I give it to my wife, who never, ever plays computer games of any kind. If she finds my game (element) fun, then I know it’s right!
Hi Drew… I am in the middle of writing my first game, and I’m just about to hit the three year mark on it
It was never meant to be a “small” game, but in my original vision I did not see it as being unreasonably big, either. Then by the time I had the puzzle chain worked out, the game-critical mechanics implemented, and started fleshing out the game world and tying the story together, I started to realize what a mammoth task I had gotten myself into. But I was already over a year invested, and determined to stick it out. I have occasionally taken stints of a couple weeks off, but otherwise, I had been chipping away at this sucker since June '19! In the interim, we have had our first two children who are now 2.5 and 1, and I am trying to build my own house singlehandedly (starting with an old barn that we stripped and added onto), all while running my own one-man carpentry/remodeling busienss to keep the money coming in. It’s been a hectic three years! I learned the TADS 3 language in the course of starting my game, which was my first programming language of any kind, so, as I could not be content to start simple, a huge amount of time in the first two years involved a lot of programming experimentation/debugging and digging through TADS library source code to figure out how and where to modify the things I needed.
I hope to be able to present the finished product at this year’s IFComp… even though it’s a 150+ location parser adventure, that could potentially occupy a person for a week or two if they tried to solve everything without hints (which is what I unrealistically hope for). But then, I thought I was going to be in IFComp '19, then '20, then '21… surely this time!
For ParserComp size doesn’t matter…
My goodness! Well, it sounds like you’ve taken the time to understand the systems in a deep way, which is a profitable activity. I’m just sort of recklessly barrelling around.
Please think of me if you need testers in the future. Good luck!
Pretty sure I couldn’t finish my game by ParserComp…
I’ll definitely be needing testers!